Intro to Metro’s Office of Equity and Race

Metro developed the Equity Platform framework in 2018 to guide the implementation of equity within the agency. In 2020, the Office of Equity and Race (OER) was launched to create tools, programs, and internal groups to increase “equity fluency” within Metro, and to ensure our work supports equitable results for the community. This summer we are welcoming changes: a new CEO, a new Metro Board Chair, and the continued reopening of L.A. County. It’s a time to use equity as our guiding principle as we recover and rebuild with marginalized communities at the center of our work. We may face another crisis, but we do not have to face it the same way.

But what is equity? And how does it apply to transportation? Though the concept of equity is not new, it’s only recently entered mainstream conversations, so we understand if not everyone is familiar with the term.

This is an introductory conversation with the OER team and a glimpse into Metro’s efforts to center equity in its decision-making. The OER team is currently comprised of Executive Officer KeAndra Cylear Dodds, Senior Director Naomi Iwasaki, and Principal Transportation Planner Caro Vera.

Naomi: Let’s start with the basics: what is equity?

KeAndra: What an important question! Equity is both an outcome and a process to address existing disparities so that everyone has fair and just access to opportunities in order to thrive. It’s about recognizing the unique history, challenges, and needs of our diverse communities, and centering those with the greatest needs in our work as we strive to help all.

It’s also about working with communities facing disparities to design and develop solutions, and allocating resources based on need and potential benefit.

Caro: To your point about allocating resources, equity redistributes resources, economic opportunity, and enhances access to public health, space, and other factors that enhance an individual’s life for communities that may have historically lacked access.

Equity begins with the foundation that there is an inherent disparity present where some have access to more than others. When we plan equitably, we attempt to not only acknowledge these existing disparities but reverse them by prioritizing those who have historically not had access to resources and opportunities.

Equity is not to be confused with equality, which distributes resources or opportunities to everyone, regardless of historical context and who may already be over-benefitting. Equity acknowledges the histories of discrimination and negligence that exist in our society and attempts to rectify them.

KeAndra: That reminds me of a saying, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” The inequities of today stem from past decisions and processes which were rooted in racism and other forms of discrimination, much of which has become ingrained in our systems and institutions. If we do not intentionally address inequities, we will perpetuate them, even as we try to help everyone. So, how do you explain why race and equity matter in transit and transportation planning?

Naomi: Well, since we’re talking history, race has always been an influencing factor in transportation. Think of the way transportation policies have been used to benefit some, with disregard and harm inflicted towards others. The mid-20th century construction and expansion of freeways in Los Angeles often cut through communities of color, destroying homes, displacing families, and locating heavy pollutants and vehicle congestion near their houses and schools. A more nuanced example is how law enforcement of public space facilitates traffic stops and transit policing that disproportionately criminalize Black people and other people of color. Transportation weaves through every facet of society, and we still live in a society based on historically racist institutions and assumptions. That is why any equity analysis or implementation of equitable transportation practices must always consider race.

Caro: Following Naomi’s point, race also ties into transportation when we dig deeper into active transportation infrastructure. Low-income communities of color in Los Angeles often have inadequate active transportation facilities (such as bicycle paths, shaded sidewalks, and signaled crosswalks), and higher income areas of the city have more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. And yet those in low-income neighborhoods usually rely the most on walking, biking or taking public transit to get to work, school, etc. Without infusing race and equity into our transportation planning practices today, we risk perpetuating the historic inequities. One’s ability to access opportunities centers around transportation. If an individual can’t access reliable, safe transportation, job options are limited, which in turn limits their access to education, economic mobility, and adequate public health.

Caro: There are many different interpretations of equity floating around in transportation planning; how do you explain equity versus equal treatment?

Naomi: ‘There are many different interpretations,’ definitely. That really shows how important it is to clearly define equity. Otherwise the term can be used incorrectly, causing confusion or, in the worst-case, perpetuating existing inequities. As Caro mentioned earlier, ‘equality’ distributes resources or opportunities to everyone, regardless of historical context. One way to distinguish between equity and equality is by defining outcome vs. process. We strive for equality of outcomes, where everyone has equal opportunity, access, and rights to fulfill their potential and positively impact society. However, because our society has many inequalities, any process to counteract inequality must be equitable. At its core, equity is an effort to mitigate harm and elevate marginalized experiences so that our institutions, interrelations, and shared culture become more equal.

KeAndra: Well said! You know, I am often asked how we consider geographic equity. Geographic equity means that one’s outcomes in life are not predetermined by their zip code or neighborhood; that is about equality of outcomes. However, most often when I am asked about “geographic equity,” the person asking usually means geographic “equality.” It is important to recognize that neighborhoods in L.A. County do not currently have the same needs, challenges, or opportunities. What South L.A. needs is very different from what Palmdale needs, which is very different from what Santa Monica needs. Transportation infrastructure, service, and options vary. If every city is given the same bus service, investment in bike lanes, or investment in street improvements, despite these differences, current inequities continue and grow. When existing conditions are unequal, equal treatment can create greater gaps in need, mobility options, and life outcomes. This is why we have to focus on equity.

Naomi: It’s been great to grow our Equity & Race team along with all the projects and initiatives that KeAndra launched since last year. What are some projects/goals you are most excited about in the coming year?

KeAndra: Our small but mighty team has a lot in the works going into this next year. With the roll out of three equity tools, development of policies to support community engagement, providing support on various projects, studies, and programs, and an array of capacity building and professional development activities, we have a lot to implement. Nonetheless, I have to say I am most excited about initiating our Agencywide Equity Assessment. My first year at Metro was focused on assessing where Metro was in terms of putting our Equity Platform into practice, applying an equity lens to new or challenging projects, building a team and equity fluent leaders in other departments and ensuring we have the tools to support the more systemic change needed to advance equity throughout the agency. The Agencywide Equity Assessment will allow us to take a high-level look at the agency and all we do to identify key areas where we excel or need to improve from an equity perspective. This will provide a baseline assessment, help determine and prioritize strategies to improve, and help us identify metrics to show improvement. It is an important and exciting project.

KeAndra: Reaching the point where equity is centered in everything Metro does will take time, training and education, resource reallocation, and process and system changes. However, we must act with urgency to make and sustain progress. Can you describe how a public agency like Metro can implement equity into the current planning of projects or day-to-day operations to ensure they truly improve mobility?

Naomi: Implementing equity absolutely requires tools and resources. I would add that another key component is influencing internal processes, specifically increasing Metro’s equity fluency. The goal of our team is not to be the only equity-fluent staff at Metro. We want everyone to consider how their decisions might impact marginalized communities, including the board and senior leadership. We want to support equity fluency throughout the whole agency. The Equity Liaisons cohort, representing each Metro department, is a key first step to building equity fluency among program and budget staff. The Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Book Club has provided an even broader platform for colleagues to discuss race, oppression, and other challenging topics that influence how a transportation agency impacts communities. It has also been exciting to see departments take initiative to form their own internal conversations and groups to provide that equity learning space.

Caro: Ensuring our staff internally are well-suited and trained to integrate equity into our every day practices is absolutely key. Implementing a strategy for how we engage with community-based organizations (CBOs) that represent the community members we serve is also key to integrating equity into our work. The forthcoming CBO Partnering Strategy: Elements for Successful Partnering in Professional Services report will establish how Metro partners with CBOs to enhance partnerships and build trust. Training staff on how to partner with community members enhances equitable partnerships.

We hope this intro to equity in transit was helpful! If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to respond. Look forward to future posts that will go into more detail about Metro’s equity work and OER’s role in building a more equitable transportation future.

9 replies

  1. I prefer bathrooms than seeing money be wasted in this “equity platform”. Honestly this post screams racism to me. Please stop using twitter and social media in general as your source of inspiration for equity and justice. Better education standards would increase equity. discriminating against someone based on their light skin color is disgraceful. I am happy you guys denied me a internship position with auditing 2011. Couldn’t work with people who focus only on their skin color. Remember MLK said, “Judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.”

  2. Hello, I left a comment here a couple of a couple of days ago and also confirmed it thru an emauil sent by you. However, it did not appear on The Source. I tried the email prompt beneath your name, but it replied “ERROR”, hence I am writing to you thru The Source directly. Can you please clarify this? Thanks.

    • Hi Tom,

      We try to approve comments as they come in during business hours. Thank you.

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source

      • Thank you, I will keep holidays and weekends in mind while I await a reply.

  3. If only it was that easy–starting with rectifying America’s so-called “First Sin”–the theft of the Western Hemisphere from its First Peoples at gun point, with infected trade goods, and broken promises, etc.!

  4. Metro and the OER team seem to be fairly illiterate as to what the concept of “equality” actually means. Unlike what’s suggested above, “equality” does in fact refer to equal outcomes. Think of “income equality/inequality”.

    Unfortunately, this seems to be yet another instance of contemporary institutions using memes instead of dictionaries when attempting to discuss issues of race. What’s clear, though, is that the hostile language some governmental organizations are starting to hurl at the concepts of equality and color blindness is going to run headfirst into the Equal Protection Clause.

  5. Pay low-income riders to participate in calls/surveys to build off the customer experience work Metro is beginning. Learn from them & empower them as community leaders

  6. Building restrooms for the Metro train customers would meet the goals of equity and justice. Many people can’t “hold it” so they fear to ride the trains. These are the basic human needs that have to addressed as your first priority.

    • Yep! For instance, last April’s “first priority” at METRO was renting Union Station to The Good, The Great and The Few of Hollywood, instead of the needs of its 2+ million (METRO figure) passengers and owners.